Monday, 1 December 2008

Buddhist Ethics - is there one?

This a question that has been posed, to some extent or another, by various writers over the years. One of those is Damien Keown (author of "The Nature of Buddhist Ethics" and various articles) and another is Georges Dreyfus (see his 1995 JBE article here). Both contend that Buddhism never developed an actual "ethics" as we in the West would see it.

One defender of the theory that Buddhists DID in fact have substantive ethical deliberation (and thus a real 'Buddhist ethics') is Amod Lele (unpublished 2007 Harvard Ph.D. dissertation - my gratitude to him for sharing this with me) in his work on Śāntideva.

What do we think?

Some questions:
  1. What constitutes "Ethics"?
  2. When did it arise in the "West"?
  3. What prevented it from arising in Asian contexts (if in fact it didn't)?
Keown's claim (borrowed from Lele, p.49):
While Buddhist teachings include normative aspects, such as
the Five Precepts and the rules of the Vinaya, these are typically
presented simply as injunctions, rather than as conclusions
logically deduced from explicitly stated values and principles. In
other words, the Precepts are simply announced, and one is left
to figure out the invisible superstructure from which they are
derived. Thus although Buddhism has normative teachings, it
does not have normative ethics. (Keown 2005, 50)
Dreyfus's claim:
First, Tibetan Buddhist traditions did not develop systematic theoretical reflections on the nature and scope of ethics. This is not to say, as has been often misunderstood, that these traditions are ethically weak. Like other rich traditions, Tibetan Buddhist traditions have developed substantive ethical systems, at the personal, interpersonal and social levels, while lacking a theoretical reflection on the nature of their ethical beliefs and practices. This lack of theoretical ethics, what we could call second degree ethics in opposition to substantive ethics, affects not only Tibetan Buddhism, but Indian Buddhism and other related traditions, and is quite remarkable given the richness of Indian Buddhist philosophical reflection in general. Compared to domains such as the philosophy of language and epistemology, Indian Buddhist traditions never developed a similar systematic reflection on the nature of ethical concepts. This is not to say that notions such as virtue or goodness are unknown in Indian Buddhist traditions, but that they are not taken to be philosophically interesting. Ethical concepts are studied, but they are not thought to warrant a theoretical discussion. For example, in the Vinaya literature, which is often taken as the main reference in ethical discussions in many Buddhist traditions, there are extensive substantive discussions: what are the precepts, what is included in them, what is excluded, etc. Very little attention is devoted, however, to the nature of ethical concepts. Precepts are discussed practically, but their status is not systematically theorized. (p.28-9 in aforementioned article)
Keown's article cited by Lele is in:

Keown, Damien. 2005. Buddhism: Morality Without Ethics? In Buddhist
Studies From India to America: Essays in Honor of Charles S. Prebish, edited
by Damien Keown. London: Routledge.


  1. I tried to comment on your American Buddhist post on punna but for some reason my comments wouldnt go on. So your getting my comments here.
    Your understanding I of punna is based more on the traditional Tharavadin one which is as you say, rather selfish. Punna simply means a 'good' virtuous' 'meritorious' deed and the psychological results thereof. Ideas like 'accumulating' transferring' 'making' and 'earning' punna once again come from the traditional self-centered understanding. The results or better, effects of punna are peace of mind, happiness, joy, etc, which is not 'accumulated' but which reinforces the tendency to do well and influences the mind in a positive way. Traditional Theravada sees punna as a substance whereas it is an words or actions that are motivated by and which reinforce positive mental states. You might like to have a look at
    I enjoyed reading some of your posts and look forward to reading more.

  2. Dear venerable Shravasti Dhammika, thank you for your comments and clarifications on punna. I hope that you may continue to find my blog(s) worth reading and commenting upon in the future. Metta, justin

  3. Hi Justin - just found this post through a vanity Google search. Good to see you have a blog. I'm hoping to start one of my own this summer. Are you going to do another post on the "yes" side to the "is there Buddhist ethics?" question?